The death of Kim Jong -il may gradually unlock change in North Korea, but the process is unlikely to be smooth or quick.
In 2010, Mr. Kim promoted his 20-something son Kim Jong-un to be a four-star general and spent the last year trying to bolster his standing among top party and military leaders. Whether Kim Jong-il will posthumously succeed in consolidating an oxymoronic communist monarchy is unlikely, but the succession politics of the last year were marked by two dangerous bellicose events – the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island.
In the short term of months, I do not expect great change in Pyongyang. But over the next year or so, Kim Jong-un may find it difficult to consolidate his power with the old guard, particularly in the Army. That would suggest a period of uncertainty and instability.
In the long term, I believe that the Kim monarchy will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunited, but these expectations have taken much longer to fulfill than anyone expected a decade ago. When I chaired the National Intelligence Council a decade and a half ago, I was struck by how opaque the North Korean regime was to outside intelligence.
Other regional players such as Japan and South Korea will be nervous, but maintain their close alliance with the United States. China has more of a problem. It wants North Korea to change, to give up its nuclear weapons, and to stop creating crises (like the two last year) that endanger Chinese security. But China is also afraid that a collapse of the North Korean government might create chaos on its borders. Ironically, while China provides the economic and food assistance that North Korea desperately needs, China has limited leverage over the “hermit kingdom.”
North Korea has the paradoxical “power of the weak.” In certain bargaining situations, as I argue in The Future of Power, weakness and the threat that a partner will collapse can be a source of bargaining power. A bankrupt debtor who owes $1,000 has little power, but if it owes $1 billion, it may have considerable bargaining power – witness the fate of institutions judged “too big to fail” in the 2008 financial crisis.
As the Financial Times once observed, Kim Jong-il “is probably the only world leader who can make Beijing look powerless…Diplomats say Mr. Kim brazenly plays on Chinese fears. If the Chinese do not pump aid into his crumbling economy, he argues, they will face refugees pouring across the border and possible unrest.”
The net result is likely to be a resumption of efforts to bring North Korea back to the table at the six-party-nuclear talks that were suspended after the second Korean nuclear test in 2009. This can be a useful step in trying to coordinate diplomatic reactions among Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul, but one should not expect much from the talks. The main feature of the coming months is likely to be uncertainty about the future of the Korean regime.
This piece first appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.